Kilkenny Festival introduces Julius Eastman to new audience

A fiery pianist, and a singer of phenomenal range and power

It’s not been a good year for connections between composers, musicians and live audiences. And Kilkenny Arts Festival, one of the few festivals that did manage to take place in the flesh last year, did exactly what it had to do this year.

It drew on local talent, and it split its focus between online and in-person performances. The major event, the first Irish staging of Richard Strauss's Elektra – outdoors with pre-recorded orchestra and amplified singers to audiences of 50 – has already been reviewed in these pages by Michael Dungan. The other large, live performance was of Julius Eastman's 1974 Femenine.

Julius who, you might well ask. Eastman was born in New York city in 1940, grew up in Ithaca and died in Buffalo in May 1990, five months before his 50th birthday. He was not just a composer and improviser but also a pianist. He studied with Mieczyslaw Horszowski, whose other pupils included Murray Perahia, Richard Goode and the late Peter Serkin. He was a singer, and memorably recorded Peter Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King with The Fires of London conducted by the composer.

The album, recorded in 1970, made its way to the US when Nonesuch released it in 1973, and was nominated in the best classical performance, vocal soloist category of the Grammy Awards in 1974. It pitched Eastman against an all-star line-up of Leontyne Price (who won), Sherrill Milnes, Martina Arroyo, Elly Ameling, Marilyn Horne and Jan DeGaetani.

He took the idea of experiment as disruption more seriously than most

For most of his adult life, from 1969, when he joined the Creative Associates programme directed by Lukas Foss at the University of Buffalo, he was a significant presence on the US experimental music scene.

He took the idea of experiment as disruption more seriously than most. In a Buffalo performance of John Cage’s Song Books he gave a mock lecture on a “new system of love” and undressed a man onstage. Cage, who was usually preternaturally calm, was livid. Although Eastman’s music clearly falls under the rubric minimalist, he has a fondness for elements that jar, sometimes intruding with the vivid impact of an unruly visitor.

Outside of American experimentalism he was virtually unknown. During his lifetime he didn’t feature in any of the editions of The New Grove, the major English language music encyclopedia, not even in the 1986 four-volume edition covering American music. He finally made it into the second edition of The Grove Dictionary of American Music in 2013, and the first major study of his work was published two years later.

It’s titled Gay Guerrilla and it’s named after a 1979 piece that’s best known in a version for four pianos. That work is one of a number to which he gave provocative titles – Dirty Nigger (1977), Crazy Nigger (1978), Nigger Faggot (1978), and Evil Nigger (1979). He was not going to keep his identity as a black, gay man out of his work, an identity which inevitably also made him an outsider in the mostly white field of experimental classical music.

The 1980s saw a personal decline – drugs, alcohol, sleeping in homeless centres. Even the news of his death was slow to leak out. Kyle Gann, who wrote the first Eastman obituary, for The Village Voice, eight months after he died, described him as "a taut, wiry, gay African-American man. He had such an appearance of athleticism and pent-up energy that he could look dangerous, yet he had a gentle sense of humour, and his deep, sepulchral voice, incommensurate with his slight figure, conveyed the solemn authority of a prophet. He was a fiery pianist, and a singer of phenomenal range and power." He described the Maxwell Davies recording as "probably the closest he ever came to any visibility in the mainstream music world".

Given the circumstances of his later years, it’s hardly surprising that Eastman’s scores were, to put it mildly, elusive. Some have been reconstructed from live recordings. A fellow composer, Mary Jane Leach, set about collecting and collating his work and Gay Guerrilla, the collection of essays she edited with new music administrator Renée Levine Packer, has sparked a sharp upturn in Eastman’s posthumous fortunes. A long drought has turned into something of a deluge.

Crash Ensemble performed Femenine (1974) in a National Concert Hall livestream series last year and played the work for a live audience for the first time in Kilkenny’s Watergate Theatre last Thursday.

The piece, for a small, mixed ensemble, lasts about 70 minutes and has a double background, a two-note pattern on marimba and a wallpaper of sleigh bells. The score consists of just five pages and is written in a style that gives the players large freedoms to make their way through the specified patterns and repetitions.

It was the musical crazy paving of David Fennessy's Jack for two unplugged electric guitars that really hit the spot for me

The pared-back material and the slow progress of the first third or so of the work, create an aura of almost soporific blandness that is quite at odds with the dynamism and impact with which Eastman is associated. The piece may no longer be graspable in the way Eastman intended – there was a companion piece, Masculine, which is now sadly lost. Yes, the opening mood does get undercut, but the wait seems too distended, the shift too contrived.

Crash had a field day in a work that they gave the impression of finding highly gratifying to play.

The group were also involved in [Reactions], videos presented as a series of film installations by filmmaker Laura Sheeran and nine composers. Sheeran's imagery lingers lovingly on the fingers and instruments of mostly headless musicians and has drifting shots of the composer's scores not always chosen for moments of musical connection. It was the musical crazy paving of David Fennessy's Jack for two unplugged electric guitars that really hit the spot for me.

Online it was – no offence – none of the music from Chamber Choir Ireland (which included the Irish premiere of Caroline Shaw’s origami-obsessed How to fold the wind) or the instalments of the Secret Music series filmed in Kilkenny locations that touched most deeply. It was the pain and loss that came across in the spoken introductions by the Secret Music performers. Traditional singer Nell Ní Chróinín talked about being really happy at leaving “the sitting room or the kitchen or the house” and “actually getting to sing outside of the house”.

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